What if People Cared As Much About Politics as They Do Sports?

Every year when football season kicks off, the foaming at the mouth and the gentle sighing begins. People get their new jerseys, they put on their war paint, and the head to the stadium to howl themselves hoarse, because that local sports team really has a chance to go all the way this year. The sighs come from the non sports fans on social media, as they shake their heads in a disappointed fashion because of all this energy going to waste. And so the old axiom rears its head: if people cared half as much about our nation and its policies as they do about football, we’d all be better off. But would it be wise to try and divert such energy into politics?

It seems like a wonderful solution to the problems of the nation: there’s a great mass of people and if they could only pay attention to something important instead of their silly sportsball, we could really get something done for a change. How is it possible that all this energy could be wasted, year after year, and wouldn’t it be great if the sports teams were championing some political cause (NSFW, video) that would make the world a better place?

When major things like DeflateGate happen in sports, the fallout bleeds over into the main news cycle. Instead of being relegated to a 5 minute discussion of the day’s highlights, sports becomes the news, and aided by the 24 hour news cycle it becomes all we talk about, Sports fans tweet, and update their status, post stadium selfies and game clips, and discuss the issue over and over until people who believe politics a more worthy of everyone’s attention get fed up, and lash out. They bemoan this subculture they don’t understand, and complain about a litany of posts to which they can’t relate. Naturally, if one can’t understand something, it must be useless.

This same attitude is held by the sports fans. See Twitter’s reaction to DOTA 2 matches appearing on ESPN, or these angry people. Or people will develop a way to get that ‘sanctimonious’ political content out of their Facebook feeds so they can spend more time liking posts about Tim Tebow or Tom Brady. Maybe you’re sick of both like politics or sports, and just want to post cat pictures and minion memes all day. That’s fine too.

In truth, there is no real difference between sports fans and those who consider themselves politically informed. According to Nielsen data 111.3 million people watched the Superbowl in 2012, and according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, 126 million turned out to vote in the 2012 presidential election. There is undoubtedly some overlap between those groups, and there are still other groups that couldn’t care less about sports or politics. For the most part though, sports is not stealing energy from politics: people are participating in both, and sometimes in equal measure.

But let’s engage in a thought experiment for a moment. What if sports disappeared overnight, and everyone decided to get into the field of politics en masse? Congress people would buried under avalanches of mail and the landscape would shift wildly. There would certainly be an increase in participation, but is that what politics needs to become more stable? Is it what the country needs to develop deeper political awareness among its citizens? Would this be the great awakening of the sheeple so many conspiracy theorists have prophesied?

Now consider the kind of people political types on Facebook complain about: The super fans. Those people that have engaged in a lifelong hobby that is sports. They buy the season tickets, they buy merchandise, they plaster their car in bumper stickers declaring their support, they have a dogged attachment to their team, their favorite players, and their preferred franchise. If the only thing they ever cared about was the Oakland Raiders, what’s to stop them attaching to a candidate and a party with the exact same determination. Given the amount of money sports fans are willing to spend on something that’s even tangentially related to their sport, it follows that this group could inject a lot more money into politics; make of that what you will.

Politics already has these people. They vote for the same party every time they can, they come out for the midterms, they donate hundreds of dollars to campaigns, they wear their bumper stickers with pride and they hammer signs into their lawns to announce to the world that they support the Candidate A over Candidate B. A good percentage of politically active people on social media already believe that partisan politics in the U.S. has become too extreme, so why would they invite more die hards into the fold?

The most common assertion about sports from political types, is that it is a waste of energy. However, a small study from Keren Shahar, a Ph.D. student at Tel Aviv University demonstrated that sport could be acting as a pressure valve, helping young people release their aggression, and helping them develop other skills. The energy people use to pay too much money for beer and hot dogs while shouting things at athletes isn’t wasted: it’s been diverted. VIdeo games seem to have the same function: there’s a mass of pent up energy in society, and football is doing a very good job of directing anger towards an athlete on television instead of toward your neighbors. And perhaps people are doing the same thing while watching the candidates debate on television, despite the election being a year away.

On the surface, it seems that people are disinterested in politics, and interested in sports, and the solution with a bow wrapped around is to to merge the two. There’s even a theory that one day sports could replace war (video) as a way to settle disputes between countries. Maybe politics could learn from sports — loyalty and being a team player should be valued, and you should truly support your team, regardless of how well they played this season.

Sports is truly a warehouse of boundless energy, and it could certainly do other things than what it is currently doing — perhaps not spending taxpayer money to fund the construction of stadiums (video) — but that energy is its own, and not ours to direct as we see fit.

Image Credits: iStockphoto
David McGirr

David McGirr

David McGirr is a freelance writer, storyteller, media analyst and Irish immigrant documenting his experience of American culture.
David McGirr

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